The Mobile Housing Board’s failing score on a recent federal assessment is a reflection of a large number of vacant units, not shortcomings in management or other issues, according to Dwayne Vaughn, the board’s executive director.

Nevertheless, in a letter to Board Chairman Clarence Ball dated March 17, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development designated the board “Substandard Management” and ordered it to “take immediate action to identify the sources of the performance deficiencies and develop and implement a plan to recover its [assessment] score and ensure long-term sustainability at an acceptable level of performance.”

For the fiscal year ending Dec. 31, 2012, the board received an overall Public Housing Assessment System (PHAS) score of 63 out of 100, a combination of indicators from its physical facilities, its finances, its management and its capital fund.   

In the letter, HUD acknowledges that generally, when a public housing agency becomes management substandard, it has failed to maintain an acceptable occupancy level in its developments. But HUD also warns that without an adequate response, it has the authority to initiate its own improvement plan, effectively becoming the day-to-day operator of the housing board.

“The system is weighted heavily toward full occupancy,” Vaughn said, explaining that Mobile’s score was skewed negatively by a complete vacancy at the 292-unit Josephine Allen development and a partial vacancy at the 452-unit Roger Williams development. Both, outdated and in some cases damaged by storms or floods, have demolition applications pending with HUD.

“If you do not have optimum occupancy, it’s difficult to achieve a minimum score of 15 out of 25 in (the management) category, so HUD sends this letter out and we have been working since that time to address the issues they identified and respond accordingly,” Vaughn said.

MHB has had an application pending for the demolition of Josephine Allen since 2011. HUD has repeatedly denied the application for technical reasons, Vaughn said, such as the failure to submit a complete environmental impact statement. In the meantime, the ongoing vacancies have also resulted in decreased funding to the local board.

“I would implore HUD to approve the demolition of Josephine Allen and Roger Williams so we can have a passing score and do better,” he said. “As long as those remain vacant it will be very difficult. Frankly I’m saddened because we don’t like the designation, but there is nothing we can do until HUD approves our applications.”

MHB received a score of 14 out of 25 in the management indicator, 24 out of 40 in the physical indicator, 20 out of 25 in the financial indicator and five out of 10 in the capital fund indicator. The assessment was the result of a HUD contractor’s physical inspection of 25 random units, including those in the Roger Williams development, which has 158 tenants and 294 vacancies, Vaughn said.

Vaughn said the MHB has “some of the oldest housing stock in the Southeast” and that many of its housing communities are in need of substantial physical and capital improvement and repositioning. To that end, the board has proposed the Housing Transformation Plan 2020, which at a high estimate could cost as much as $439.5 million. Lagniappe was mailed a copy of the executive summary anonymously.

The plan, which Vaughn said has been pitched to the mayor but not approved or endorsed, seeks to redevelop, modernize and enhance aging housing developments and integrate lower income individuals and families alongside middle-class or wealthier property owners.

“We want to make sure even someone of low wealth has the ability to live somewhere free from the elements of crime and social ills,” Vaughn said. “These families may be low wealth, but they are still woven into the fabric of community and ideally growing economically. In many cases, it’s hard to have hope for future if we can’t provide quality and equitable housing.”

The plan is still in its infancy, but Vaughn said he would expect HUD to only finance about a fourth of its proposed cost. The rest would have to come from private investment or taxation, he said.  

Mayor Sandy Stimpson said he has been briefed about the plan, but has encouraged the board to focus on more immediate benchmarks.

“We did not sign off on it at this point, we just looked at it and discussed how we think it ought to be different,” Stimpson said, adding that the financial details of the plan were not deliberated during two meetings his administration has had with the housing board. “We really didn’t talk about the dollars and where the dollars would come from, it was more about how big the scope was and how we need to do some things that are smaller and more measurable in the short term and not a huge multi-year plan. Today, the board has to do some things to regain HUD’s confidence.”

Stimpson said he would rely on input from Nigel Roberts, his recently appointed Director of Community Planning and Development Programs, before he would sign off on any plans the housing board may propose.  

“To me, ‘substandard’ means if we don’t change direction and get better results with the metrics they are looking at, that means HUD will come in and take it over and run the housing board,” he said. “We want to try to make sure that does not happen and there will be some things that have to happen. But first we need measured results and improvements and the hope is Nigel Roberts will help them do that.”

Meanwhile, Vaughn said the board was working to meet HUD’s 30-day response deadline to its letter.

“We’re in the process of putting that response together,” he said last week. “A part of that is correcting some of the concerns HUD has raised about the vacancies, but we also followed some of their recommendations for improvement and we’re working very hard to clear things like their environmental report. Those are requirements they say they need, but until we get permission to tear down some of these vacant units, we’re going to struggle on that aspect.”

Members of the Housing Board are appointed by the mayor, though none of the current members are Stimpson appointees. Currently the board is made up of Chairman Clarence Ball, Vice-Chairman Donald Langham, Residents Council Member Ruby Lang, Rev. Melvin Clark and Norman Hill. Ball has been on the board since 1990, Clark since 1992, Langham since 1993, Lang since 2000 and Hill since September of last year.